AUSTIN (KXAN) — A report released Wednesday says African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to experience use of force by the Austin Police Department.
The report, released by the Urban Institute and the Center for Policing Equity, analyzes Austin police traffic stops and searches, as well as officer use of force in 2014 and 2015. Phillip Goff, the director of the Center for Policing Equity, says there are three possible explanations for the disparity: Community, police policies and the relationship between police and the public.
For the report, Goff’s team were looking at community-level explanations, including education, housing, crime and poverty. They say they chose Austin police as a partner because its use-of-force data is the most comprehensive publicly available in the country. Because the department does not publish any officer-specific data out of privacy concerns, the report authors say it’s impossible to know how much of the problem is due to individual officers.
When it comes to vehicle searches, the report found stopped, black drivers of all ages had the highest probability of having their vehicle searched by officers. Stopped, young Hispanic drivers had the second-highest probability of a vehicle search.
Austin neighborhoods with a higher percentage of black or Hispanic residents experienced a disproportionate amount of police use of force.
Among the report’s findings, they found the police department’s searches to be highly effective, returning contraband around 48 percent of the time, but one expert says there’s data missing before coming to the conclusion that they are “highly effective.”
“We don’t know about the other half, because that data is not available, and so the researches themselves say, ‘we don’t know what to conclude from this, because it could be that they’re doing a great job, it could be that we just have a very incomplete set of data’,” Ranjana Natrajan, a clinical professor at UT School of Law says.
The researchers say Austin is the first city to make the results of the report from the center public and despite the missing data, Natrajan commends the Austin Police Department for stepping up and sharing the data.
“Making this kind of data transparent shows that the police stand by what they do, and that they’re trying really hard to work out the kinks and remove the unfairness and remove the racial disproportionalities in their policing,” Natrajan said.
“The fact that Austin has stepped up and said that ‘yes we’re going to be first’, this is a scary thing,” said Chris Burbank, director of Law Enforcement Engagement for The Center for Policing Equity and the former chief of the Salt Lake City Police Department. “You are going to have to admit that there are things that are going wrong, things that you can do better, things that need to change.”
The report released Wednesday focused on community-level explanations, but not what the researchers called police-level or relational explanations. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo says he wants to bring changes to the department to address the issues highlighted in the report.
“We are going to create safe spaces as a police department so everyone can really talk about their biases, their experiences because I think self-awareness is really important an unfortunately because no one ever wants to talk about race relations,” Chief Acevedo says.
They have also changed policy with department heads to ensure no citizen police complaints are swept under the rug.
“If a sergeant doesn’t document or handle that citizen complaint appropriately, in terms of following policy and process, the first offense, calls for a 15-day suspension up to and including an indefinite suspension which means you’re fired,” Chief Acevedo said. He adds the second offense will be automatic termination. “People will rise to the level of expectation you set and then will enforce and we are raising the bar.”
The next step in the research process is to conduct police and community surveys.
The Center for Policing Equity is funded through grants. APD did not pay for the report. Still, funding for upcoming community surveys and a time frame for conducting those surveys was not immediately clear Thursday.
“If you care about what we’re talking about, I hope that somebody here in Austin will take the lead and fund the second piece, that deep dive,” said Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo.
In March, Austin police monitor Margo Frasier gave the department a B- on how it handles traffic stops.
“If you are African American in this community, you stand a 1 out of 6 chance if you’re stopped that you are going to be searched. If you’re Hispanic, it is 1 out of 9. If you’re Caucasian it’s 1 out 22,” Frasier said at the time.